After meeting at work, Roberta and Stevie fall into an effortless best-friendship and soon move in together. Roberta concocts elaborate meals for the pair—a habit she picked up while lonely in college—which leads to the idea for Supper Club: a collective of women who gather after dark to feast and indulge their rage and revelry. Told in alternating timelines, Roberta’s past unfolds, marked by cruel and careless men, while in the present she grows into something new and navigates an increasingly complicated friendship.
Red at the Bone
Jacqueline Woodson’s latest unravels life’s twists and turns not only for 16-year-old Melody, celebrating her coming-of-age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone, but also the two generations before her and the unexpected pregnancy that brought their families together. As the story flashes between past, present, and future, the characters’ longings and ambitions collide with the life-changing decisions they’re asked to make while still forming identities of their own.
Set in Washington D.C. during a summer of Cold War paranoia, Summerlings follows the exploits of young John and his best friends: Max, Ivan, and Beatriz. Amid a major spider infestation (the work of the Russians?), the friends plan a heist to steal a venomous insect and spike the punch at a block party so the adults will lighten up. But an event involving Max’s beautiful and outspoken aunt Elena—the target of relentless neighborhood gossip—will make this summer a turning point for the young friends.
What Red Was
When Kate Quaile and Max Rippon meet at college, they instantly become a—platonic, loving—unit. Max, the son of a famous film director, invites Kate into his family’s wealthy circle and gilded estates. And then one night, during one of the Rippons’ parties, Kate is assaulted by a person close to Max—a fact that Kate fears sharing with her friend. What Red Was is an incisive, urgent take on rape culture, privilege, and the aftermath of trauma written by a bold new voice in fiction.
The Saturday Night Ghost Club
Before siblings Billy and Dove move to 1980s Niagara Falls, 12-year-old Jake spends most of his time with his eccentric uncle Calvin, a believer in conspiracy theories and all things occult. That summer, Calvin inducts Jake and his friends into the Saturday Night Ghost Club—leading, as you might imagine, to a slew of misadventures. Haunting yet soulful, the story is narrated by adult Jake, a neurosurgeon able to reframe his experiences through the fallibility of memory.
If you’re working through Colson Whitehead’s backlist, move this nostalgic novel-in-stories to the top of your list. During the summer of 1985, 15-year-old Benji Cooper leaves his mostly white Manhattan prep school behind for the familiar haven of Sag Harbor, a Hamptons community of Black families. With three months to reinvent himself, Benji does his utmost—getting a job scooping ice cream, attempting to change his name to Ben, ditching his bicycle for his older friend’s car—and generally dwelling in the consciousness of a bright, irreverent teen.
In the early 90s, when graduate student Regina Gottlieb arrives at an Ivy League to study literature, she’s well aware of the damning rumors surrounding Professor Nicholas Brodeur. Still, her curiosity gets the better of her, and she winds up entangled with Brodeur and his exceptionally charismatic wife. My Education is a story of desire and mistakes, but as it stretches 15 years in the future, it also becomes a study of the coming-of-age experiences that influence the rest of our lives.
The Star Side of Bird Hill
Prepare to be won over by the young sisters of Naomi Jackson’s debut. When their mother can no longer care for them, 10-year-old Phaedra and 16-year-old Dionne are sent from Brooklyn to Barbados to live with their grandmother. While Dionne experiences first love and pines for home, Phaedra familiarizes herself with Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations, and learns more about her mother every day. When their absentee father appears to take them home, Phaedra and Dionne will have to reconsider what home means to them.
Rita Mae Brown
If you haven’t read Rita Mae Brown’s groundbreaking coming-of-age novel that’s been changing lives since it published in 1973 (Gloria Steinem’s words!), it’s time to treat yourself. It centers on the singular Molly Bolt, a spirited and uncompromising girl who grows up in a poor adoptive family in the South. As Molly discovers her love of women and rejects the repressive norms of heteronormativity, she carves a path for herself in the world and finds her own happy ending.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Inspired by the author’s own childhood during Escobar-era Colombia, Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows 7-year-old Chula—who’s only known life in Bogota behind her gated community—and a young woman named Petrona, brought from the guerilla slums to serve as a live-in maid for Chula’s family. As Chula observes the mysterious maid, Petrona struggles between the pull of first love and her family’s needs—while simultaneously, the country-wide conflict rapidly escalates. A dazzling force of a novel that rewrites history from marginalized perspectives.
“I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.” So begins Elif Batuman’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, which follows Selin through her freshman year at Harvard and her summer in the Hungarian countryside. The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Selin is cerebral, consistently droll, and falling in love with Ivan—an older mathematics student—over their long and poignant emails. It’s a novel you want to take your time with, following along at Selin’s contemplative pace as she comes to understand the divide between life and fiction.
How to Survive a Summer
Of course, we don’t just come of age once and end it there—life is full of circuity and re-examination. That’s the case for Will Dillard, a graduate student originally from the rural South, who in his teens spent a traumatic summer at a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. When Will learns about a new slasher film based on Camp Levi and the death of one of his fellow campers, he’ll have to return to that fateful place, reclaim his story, and rebuild the foundations of his sense of self.
Is there any read quite so satisfying as a coming-of-age novel? Between first loves, first heartbreak, and the serious work of fine-tuning one’s identity—intertwined with unavoidable issues like class divides, tragedy, and inherited family secrets—these stories of self-discovery are packed with emotional heft and nostalgic highs and lows. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorites—and while they span identities, eras, and circumstance, each protagonist can agree on one thing: growing up is hard to do.
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